A Trip Down Memory Lane

23 Feb

This morning, I’ve been reading through some of the literary journalism I wrote back in college in preparation for my interview on Friday (gulp!). I am planning on bringing writing samples of marketing copy and a couple of third-person narratives with me, in addition to my resume, just in case.

Anyway, I really enjoyed reading this story again, so I thought I’d share it with you all. Enjoy!

 

Milk Carton

My friend, Kelly, called it my Milk Carton. Small and white with painted silver hubcaps and a hatchback that wouldn’t stay open, it went from 0 to 60 in a minute and a half. I called it my Putt-Putt car.

In the winter, my own breath puffed warm air into the frigid car faster than the heater. The heating I provided, however, did nothing but cause the windows to dangerously fog up. And for a short period of time, the brakes didn’t work unless the whole weight of my body forced them to. In the summer, cranking the air conditioning up to full blast was synonymous with cranking the windows down all the way, which inevitably blew anything lighter than a rock out onto the garbage-speckled highway leading to my house. To a stranger, those quirks would have been considered defects; to me, they were the endearing idiosyncrasies of a good friend. And while my friends snickered about my ’90 Mercury Tracer, I was proud of it.

The fondness I developed for my Tracer didn’t surprise me. Growing up, one of my favorite things to do was play make-believe in my parents’ old Ford Country Squire with the fake-wood side panels. Countless times, I buckled My Kid Sister in the back and climbed into the driver’s seat. My feet dangling from the seat, I turned the key counter-clockwise—“backward”—so that the radio turned on and the doors dinged when open. As I fiddled with the radio, I imagined I was a mom driving my kids to school, going to the mall, being important. The day that I would be able to drive seemed like the day that I would go to college—I knew it was coming but never expected it to arrive.

My dad bought my Tracer for me before I even had my permit. Even though I couldn’t legally drive, he and I often took my car out on the deserted country roads around our house, driving aimlessly. As my dad’s lifelong hobby and current “just for fun” job has been driving coach buses for long trips, he empathized with my desire to go speed along a stretch of pavement in a curiously entertaining metal box on top of four rubber wheels. Driving came naturally to me, as if all those hours I had spent in my parents’ station wagon out of a “driving desire” had infused a sense of understanding before me and my car.

When I did get my permit and started driving around town, it became startlingly clear to me that driving on arrow-straight country roads with no other cars in sight and driving on the complex and congested city streets were not the same at all. I hated all the other cars around me and was constantly poised to beep my car’s feeble horn if anyone dared drive a little too close. But with practice came ease and familiarity. Pretty soon, I felt like an experienced driver, confident of my abilities to successfully navigate through clumps of traffic and maneuver in and out of snug parking spots.

The day I took my driving test, six months after my sixteenth birthday, was the day that confidence of mine went missing. It didn’t help that it was also the day every school in Rochester closed early, due to bad weather. A foot of snow covered everything; I was worried that the Bureau would cancel my test. The man evaluating me obviously wished they would have. I could practically smell his sour mood as we got in my car.

Parallel parking was first, the man informed me as we put our seatbelts on. So I got prepared to exit my parking spot; I put my car in reverse, looked in the rearview mirror, glanced around me, and slowly pushed on the gas. My car didn’t budge. I pushed on the gas harder. Still nothing. My tires were spinning because of all the snow, I thought. I sheepishly told the instructor that I was stuck. He smartly advised me to take the parking brake off.

I outright failed my parallel park. Paralyzed with the fear of hitting a marker and thereby automatically failing, I backed halfway into the parking spot before sitting still to evaluate, then asked the man if I should start over. He said no and marked FAILED on my test.

Next up was the ninety-degree backup. I aced it involuntarily to make up for my previous humiliation. Then I slid the car around ten blocks in white powder to somehow demonstrate my driving ability. The dead silence between us, intensified by the blanket of snow, lack of music, and snail-like pace, stretched longer than a wad of Silly Putty being pulled apart.

When we got back to the Bureau, the man sat silent, as if deliberating my fate in his head by mentally picking off flower petals: She can pass, She cannot. He turned to me and rattled off my failures: I forgot my parking brake on, I completely failed my parallel park. I got ready to cry as he begrudgingly said that I passed. I was too confused to be happy.

It wasn’t until I drove alone for the first time, going home from school, that I began to comprehend the oddness of my new reality. Glancing around me at the car’s empty seats, I felt strangely alone. Independently alone. At that moment, the distant future had become the present—it was just me, my Tracer, and the road ahead.

I started off being a careful driver. But it wasn’t long before caution gave way to confidence and confidence gave way to hazard. My Tracer remained ever faithful though. It forgave me for the time that I bent its rear passenger door backward by backing the open door into a mailbox. It understood when I flew into the ditch at the end of my cul de sac on a slippery winter morning, cracking its plastic fender by decapitating a Dead End street sign. It accepted my apology when I slid it too quickly over the mud-covered grass and into another girl’s car before danceline practice. It bailed me out when I plowed into a snow bank while trying to turn left and change a CD at the same time. It got over the two times I forgot to fill its tank and we ended up abandoned on the side of the road. No matter how many times I accidentally abused or selfishly under-appreciated it, my Tracer always sputtered alive and drove me at golf-cart speed to my destination.

Then one night, our friendship ended. I was driving home to put on my dress and do my hair for a New Year’s Eve party I was hosting at a local hotel. I stopped my Tracer at the only stop sign at a T in the road, its left turn signal blinking and clicking. Through the foggy side windows, I quickly glanced left then right then left again. I saw no one so I went.

As I was pulling out, I noticed two white dots quickly growing bigger as they moved toward the left side of my car. The realization hit me a split second before the other car did. I was thrown against the door as the left front of my car was forcefully smacked around 180 degrees. After two long seconds, the car stopped moving. I tried putting it in reverse. The car went nowhere. I was oblivious to the fact that the hood had popped up and was blocking my vision. All the other windows were so foggy they were opaque. I unbuckled my seatbelt and stepped out to survey the damage.

When I saw what was left of my beloved Tracer, I detached from reality. I balked at my car’s unsightly transformation. I was devastated and stunned. What had just moments ago been a square hood covering a square engine was now a crumpled hood popped up to reveal a smashed triangle of mangled engine parts. More of my car’s engine parts were strewn about haphazardly. My shaking hands fumbled for my cell phone as I saw people run over to the other car. I called my boyfriend as I heard the witnesses ask if the victim was all right. I felt indignant that no one asked me how I was.

I apologized to the lady whose car I had hit. She snapped back something about it not being her fault. An apology to my car elicited a similar response. Every problem my car and I had previously encountered could have been considered a happenstance, a fluke, a stroke of bad luck. But like the lady said, this one was my fault.

Through shaky sobs, I told my parents on the phone that I had killed my car by accident. They didn’t ask questions; they just came. The firefighters talked at me—they wanted to make sure I wasn’t physically in shock. As far as I could tell, I wasn’t even physically there. I kept waiting for the moment when I’d wake up and realize that it was all a bad dream. I went and sat in my parents’ minivan, in a daze of sadness peppered with the relief of being alive. But somehow, through the thick air of that night, I understood that I would never again drive my Tracer.

I went to the impound lot the next day to retrieve my CD player and anything else I thought was of value from what I now had to call “my old car.” The car sat there, sad, forlorn, abandoned. The open hood revealed the embarrassing heap of gnarled engine. It was no longer my car, my friend with a personality I knew so well. Now it was just a car, a heap of scrap metal.

My dad pried out my stereo and we walked back to his car in defeat. On the way home, my dad said, “I’m happy that you’re safe. But I’m sad about the car. I liked that car.” So did I.

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